Kawabata, Yasunari 1899–1972
Kawabata, a novelist, short story writer, and critic, was the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Numerous deaths in his family left Kawabata virtually alone at a young age and impressed upon him the loneliness and impermanence of life, a view often reflected in his work. He is important both for his own fiction and for his support of such younger Japanese writers as Yukio Mishima. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
It is a maximal artistry which strikes me first about Kawabata, even in translation. Artistry in fiction among other things means that a reader is never bored, also that he accepts, that he has to accept, the inevitability and instantaneous quality of the things described, the persons, the actions, the situations, being just so….
At once Kawabata establishes a situation. Sometimes in the very first sentence. Snow Country, an extraordinary study of love and sensuality which was the first of his books to be translated into English (some twelve years ago), began 'The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country', a first sentence which the reader of the whole novel is unlikely to forget. (p. 200)
The title story [of House of the Sleeping Beauties] begins with the same involving immediacy. A man in his late sixties has passed through the locked gate into the reception room of a peculiar house of assignation. The proprietress or rather manageress, who has a sharp knowledge of our secret life, provides old men with unattainable, though not untouchable, youth and beauty—or not to use such abstractions, they pay to pass the night, that and no more, with young girls drugged into unknowingness.
This is Kawabata's device—though 'device' suggests a trickiness or an apparent artifice very opposite to the reader's experience—for getting deep into the being of Eguchi. Old Eguchi...
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"House of the Sleeping Beauties" is most certainly an esoteric masterpiece. (p. 7)
[It] is dominated not by openness and clarity but by a strangling tightness. In place of limpidness and purity we have density; rather than the broad, open world we have a closed room. The spirit of the author, flinging away all inhibitions, shows itself in its boldest form. I have … likened "House of the Sleeping Beauties" to a submarine in which people are trapped and the air is gradually disappearing. While in the grip of this story, the reader sweats and grows dizzy, and knows with the greatest immediacy the terror of lust urged on by the approach of death. Or, given a certain reading, the work might be likened to a film negative. A print made from it would no doubt show the whole of the day-light world in which we live, reveal the last detail of its bright, plastic hypocrisy.
"House of the Sleeping Beauties" is unusual among Mr. Kawabata's works for its formal perfection. At the end the dark girl dies, and "the woman of the house" says: "There is the other girl." With this last cruel remark, she brings down the house of lust, until then so carefully and minutely fabricated, in a collapse inhuman beyond description. It may appear to be accidental, but it is not. At a stroke it reveals the inhuman essence in a structure apparently built with solidity and care—an essence shared by "the woman of the house" with old Eguchi himself....
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[No] one can fail to notice the obsession with time modern man exhibits…. To think about the literary masters of this century is to think in large measure about the temporal concerns pervading their work….
[All] have striven to celebrate and describe those moments in which the mind's experience of time is somehow absent, those moments in which it can be said of the mind that it shares in the timeless, in the eternal. Writers in the Orient too have partaken in the quest….
Invariably observed by commentators who attempt to distinguish between the mentalities of East and West is the former's generally subjective and the latter's generally objective outlook on living in the world. (p. 330)
If the generally introspective bent of the East is a symptom correctly diagnosed, such a disposition must have its consequences in the East's vision and handling of time. An introspective propensity would suggest that those under its influence attend more to subjective time, that is, the psychological, personal, and private time an individual mind experiences, rather than to the objective, impersonal, and public time measured by clocks and calendars. Furthermore, any proposed "escape" from time will be determined by the kind of time more deeply and acutely experienced. As a result, any cessation of time the Oriental will point to as desirable will have more to do with its absence in the mind than in the world…. When Western man has conceived of the timeless, he has tended to visualize it, not-withstanding the notions of some Western writers, as a cessation of objective time. Locating eternity not in the mind, in the present moment, in the psychic, eternal "now," he has envisaged it in the stasis beyond death, beyond the world, and ultimately beyond the end of history.
To pursue these distinctions, although foolish and simplistic in certain contexts, cannot be entirely amiss here, for they define the cultural situation in Japan from which [The Master of Go] … draws its concerns.
The Master of Go reconstructs the playing in 1938 of an actual championship Go match between Shūsai, the old "Master of Go," and his young challenger, Kitani Minoru, renamed Otake in the novel…. [The death of the master a year after his defeat] casts its shadow over the entire novel, investing the match for Kawabata, the novelist, with a symbolic significance far beyond what the actual match could have had. The retirement match comes to mean "the end of an age and the bridge to a new age."… The Master's defeat and death represent the demise of that entire traditional way of life the immanent war somewhat more decisively dispatched. Otake, "the representative of a new day" … heralds the approach of a new modernity, largely Western in nature. By pitting the two representatives in a game of Go and charting the Master's deterioration and defeat, Kawabata quietly mourns the passing of an era he considers more amenable to satisfying certain spiritual cravings—especially the desire for the timeless—than the frantic modernism about to replace it.
This clash over the Go board, which is the clash between Japanese tradition and Western modernity, delineates two opposing ways humanity confronts existence. Intuitive, non-rational knowledge, with its subjective experience of time, seems to inform the first. Logical, rational knowledge, with its objective experience of time, seems to comprise the basis of the other method for living with the various limitations and mysteries of existence. The novel sharpens the theme of this cultural conflict by focusing much of its attention on temporality, which plays a considerable role both in the content and procedure of the narrative. (pp. 331-32)
For the Master, for Uragami [the narrator], and for Kawabata, the game of Go is not merely a game…. The reason for its assuming such awesome importance to the Master is that at its deepest level the game of Go is a physical vehicle for a spiritual quest toward timelessness…. At stake, then, beyond merely losing or winning the game is the Master's continued ability to initiate in himself and sustain a state of mind … in which the self, no longer aware of itself as a discrete entity of consciousness separate from the universe, connects, merges, and freely communicates with everything in an undifferentiated reality. In such a state, individual identity disappears, human passions melt away, the physical world ceases to make an impression, and the perception of time too vanishes.
But the Master finds it increasingly difficult to achieve that mystical state, the goal of his high dedication and the justification for his sacrifice of the reality most of us cling to. At the limits of his being, his spiritual resources undermined, the Master arrives at a kind of limbo between, on the one hand, a conventional happiness and, on the other, a life redeemed by periods of mystical ecstasy. (pp. 333-34)
What gradually erodes the Master's potential to appropriate these mystical states, cheating him of spiritual triumph, is that whole complex of relations to human experience called the modern sensibility, a sensibility rooted in and nurtured by scientific rationalism and its veneration of objective time and the practical, physical, everyday world. Already vulnerable to complete physical collapse and death because of the heart disease the ineluctable process of aging has wrought in him, the Master collapses spiritually as well under the relentless pressure applied by the modernity embodied in his challenger, Otake. Contesting the shape of Japan's destiny in the sense of once again reaffirming or finally undercutting a cultural milieu traditionally conducive to the achievement of these states, the Master and Otake as they face each other over the Go board "presented a complete contrast, quiet against constant motion, nervelessness against nervous tension." (p. 334)
For Otake, the modern artist governed by rationality and logic, the game of Go assumes the aspect of a race with time. His every move on the Go board the result of careful and even crafty deliberation, he finishes the game with an expenditure of time almost twice that of the Master. Dictated by the obsession with clock time, his style of play is assiduous, and although seemingly passive, it is actually sustained by an "undercurrent of aggression and an unshakable confidence,"… partaking more of an egoistic will to power than any Oriental ideal of self-negation. (p. 335)
Otake's relationship with mundane reality, in conformity with his attitude toward time, is firmly earth-bound. Acutely conscious of the social proprieties, he is appropriately devoted to wife and children, and gathers about him an army of disciples. But if Otake's...
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[Snow Country] holds the potential to shed considerable light not only on the larger purposes of Kawabata's work but on the techniques of Japanese narrative fiction in general. In this regard, Snow Country is a mirror, reflecting both backwards and forwards….
[Kawabata's Nobel Prize acceptance speech] provided a selection of certain principles especially important to him, many of them related in turn to Zen Buddhism.
The first of these is asymmetry. (p. 162)
Asymmetry and a resulting suggestiveness provide the means by which one small thing can evoke a whole world. Closed structures, harmoniously arranged, merely define themselves. Kawabata is...
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[The] early loss of [Kawabata's] parents seems responsible for the unique quality which one perceives in his life and work—a peculiar tension between life and death, detachment and attachment, the abstract and sensuous, whence derives a very special awareness of beauty bordering on sorrow….
[The] uniqueness of Kawabata's style is not its imitation of European modernism but rather its use of quintessentially Japanese poetic sensibility in the once prosaic genre of the novel. (p. 123)
Snow Country comprises a series of episodes, each of which evinces very concisely Kawabata's refined sensibility.
Despite [its] process of composition, Snow Country...
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